By: Brandon Wolfe
In 2044, the population of Earth has diminished by 99% down to a scant 21 million survivors due to a series of solar storms that have ravaged the planet. A conglomerate called the ROC Corporation has commissioned a series of robots called Automata Pilgrim 7000s as a means to erect walls and mechanical clouds to shield what’s left of the human race from the resulting radiation. These robots have been programmed to adhere to two protocols: They are not permitted to harm any form of life and they cannot reformat themselves or other robots in ways other than their creators have designated. This screed of place-setting text opens ‘Automata.’ It not only fills you in on what you’re about to see, it also lets you know up front that you’ve already seen all of which you’re about to see.
Our protagonist to guide us through this world is Jacq (pronounced “Jack” but inexplicably not also spelled that way) Vaucan (Antonio Banderas), an insurance agent for ROC who investigates claims about the 7000s from consumers (and if you think having an insurance agent as a hero sounds like an omen of impending dullness, you’re certainly not wrong). Vaucan - who has a pregnant wife at home and longs for a release from his dreary existence, possibly to a coastal setting that may or may not even still exist – investigates an altercation between a robot and a rogue cop (Dylan McDermott, overacting embarrassingly). This leads Vaucan down a path where he comes to realize that the robots have come to flagrantly violate Protocol #2, frequently repairing, modifying or even destroying themselves. Eventually when ROC decides to cover-up all evidence of robot autonomy, a group of 7000s, led by a fembot called Chloe (voiced by Melanie Griffith, who also cameos as Chloe’s designer) takes Vaucan into the desert wasteland to meet their leader, with ROC operatives in hot pursuit.
‘Automata’ makes good use of its modest budget. Its depiction of the future is basically limited to advertising techniques features Godzilla-sized holograms loitering the cityscape. Otherwise it’s all dark rooms, junkyards and, primarily, the desert, all the best to keep things cheap. But the effects used to bring the robots to life are very well-done. They look and move plausibly as machines, never seeming overly animated. The effects always look practical and seem to occupy the same space as the actors. It’s a good use of resources in a movie that never looks chintzy, exactly, but definitely seems resourcefully frugal.
But the film does not overcome its overt familiarity. Employing its own blatant interpretation of Asimov’s famous Three Laws of Robotics, the film often comes across as something of cost-cutting ‘I, Robot’ with Banderas stepping into Will Smith’s shoes, investigating robots yearning to evolve and achieve independence in a world where they’re expected to remain second-class appliances. The film also owes a sizable debt to ‘Blade Runner,’ as all dystopian sci-fi films do. There is frustratingly little in ‘Automata’ that comes across as new territory. It traffics in old standbys. The apocalyptic future, the subjugated droids, the sinister corporation, this is all old-hat by now, and the film does nothing to make any of these concepts feel any less dust-covered.
Banderas comes across as entirely wrong for his role. That Puss-in-Boots seductive purr of his seems an ill fit for a beleaguered schmoe spouting tech-heavy exposition and he never seems to find the appropriate energy for the role, alternately shouting too much or seeming too lethargic. Robert Forster, that sturdy old pro, offers solid support as Vaucan’s tough but decent boss, but he doesn’t have much to work with. Griffith’s honeysuckle voice is an asset for the Chloe robot, but she herself doesn’t make a strong impression in her brief onscreen role. Like Banderas, sci-fi gibberish is not her native tongue. And it bears repeating that McDermott is simply terrible in this film. If this is the sort of work he delivers these days, then no wonder that guy can’t keep a show on the air. Finally, the entire stretch set in the desert (which encompasses at least half of the film, if not slightly more than that) drags on and on, killing any momentum with sluggish repetitiveness.
Directed by Gabe Ibanez, ‘Automata’ at least functions as a calling card for what he is capable of achieving visually on a sparse budget. But nothing else about the film lands or makes any sort of impression. It borrows from everything under the sun without a single new idea of its own to make it feel like anything but a retrospective on science-fiction clichés. Unlike its evolving robots, it’s a machine made out of old parts that stubbornly refuses to make any upgrades.
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